Jill Sutton, Canberra Regional Meeting.
Clive Hamilton is a master of clarification. In the first paragraph of his new book, “Earthmasters” he simplifies the practices of geo-engineering, or “playing God with the planet” into just two approaches. In their response to global warming, he explains that geo-engineers can either try to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to store it somewhere less dangerous, or attempt to reduce the amount of sunlight reaching our planet where it is trapped in our atmosphere.
Calling the first approach “sucking carbon” he explains the things we have vaguely heard about like iron fertilization of the oceans or putting lime into the sea. His conclusions that follow seem irrefutably wise. Reviewing the findings in detail we are convinced that advocates are “just trying to stuff the genie back into the bottle” and that we don’t know nearly enough about the Earth’s systems to be making such heroic interventions. Hamilton concludes that there are no storage places left, adequate for the carbon we have released from its “subterranean tombs”, which could inspire confidence in a reasonable observer.
He calls the other geo-engineering tack, “regulating sunlight” and renders processes like brightening the clouds, or spraying sulphur into the sky, comprehensible although again he finds they also pose a number of “exquisite dilemmas”. As these approaches can be used to manipulate rates of warming or cooling, Hamilton uncovers more anxiety-provoking research about their potentially terrifying and incalculable effects on our eco-systems.
Hamilton’s capacity to move comfortably across different kinds of data is also his hallmark and so we turn to some sociological analysis of what is happening amongst the geophysicists. It turns out that there is already a powerful “geoclique” with its central characters, David Keith and Ken Caldiera, and its leading financial supporter, Bill Gates. As Hamilton puts it, despite ‘the genuflecting to “mitigation first”, the lure of the “technofix” is irresistible… and “oil companies… are quietly backing research into geo-engineering.” Inevitably there has been a “flurry of patents” and geo-engineering is seen as a source of very profitable investment which is even becoming attractive to climate deniers.
Hamilton explains that “Just as the need to defend a cultural worldview makes conservative white males prone to repudiate climate science, so that world view will make them prone to support geo-engineering solutions.” To characterize the stupidity of this optimistic approach he quotes one of my favourite feminist theorists, Barbara Ehrenreich: “If positive thinking can defeat breast cancer,” she asks ironically, “why can’t it defeat climate change?”
But the main thrust of Hamilton’s book is the ethical battle, as he characterises it, between the Prometheans and the Soterians. The Greek god, Prometheus, the God of technological mastery, and Soteria, the Goddess of preservation and deliverance from harm, can help us to see how a world view, which is confident about humanity’s ability to control nature, can be contrasted with one which recognizes “the hubris of mastery solutions”.
It seems though that the Prometheans have got the upper hand in many of the world’s most powerful places: Hamilton describes pro-geo-engineering work at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory where Cold War thinking was nurtured, in a US Bipartisan Policy Center where it has been rebranded “climate remediation”, in the White House where there have been reports advising that the US should seize the initiative, as research is already underway in Germany, India, Russia and the UK, in NASA and the Carnegie Institute, and in military planning at the highest levels.
Hamilton repeatedly reminds us that technologically brilliant people can make very foolish decisions in politics and he makes the simple but fundamental observation that “geo-engineering research is virtually certain to reduce incentives to pursue emission reductions”. He is frightened by our attempts to “play God”, instead of “facing up to our failures” and attempting “to become better humans”. He reviews the history of the human species on this planet and observes that our “activities have so changed our climatic future that we have prevented one and possibly several ice ages”, evidence indeed of our Promethean power to damage the climate! He reminds us that the “Earth will take tens or hundreds of thousands of years to reach a new equilibrium following the pulse of carbon emissions sent into the atmosphere by humans mostly over the century from 1950 to 2050”. He despairs over our “human exceptionalism” and our “growth fetishism”… so “Prometheans rule” and “if the meek are ever to inherit the Earth then they had better be quick”!
I do wish our politicians would read this book. It saddens me to see, in Andrew Leigh’s paper, “The Pro-Growth Progressive”, 2011, the suggestion that we simply “decouple growth from carbon pollution as we did with CFCs”, and that our economic growth will provide resources for the transition! He thinks that we will derive our future growth and productivity from carbon-neutral sources but, if this is likely, how would he account for the massive but mostly undercover interest of top military, research, political, investment and insurance bodies in what Hamilton calls “earth management”?
We read recently in the Canberra Times (26/3/13) that Australia ranks 17th out of 19 countries for low-carbon competitiveness, well behind China which ranks 3rd with its clean energy investment and high-technology exports. Clearly we need a more nimble government in this country, one which can turn the big ship of state around quickly in the face of the planetary reality which Hamilton paints so astutely and from an impressive number of perspectives. But how will we achieve this in the face of contemporary political optimism and denial?
Hamilton does not give us signposts about how we might turn ourselves to a more Soterian frame of mind although, at heart, this is clearly what he wants. Perhaps we need to turn to the theologians to find the help so for us to meet this challenge. Peter Todd’s “The Individuation of God” advocates that we take notice of influences in our universe which are “independent of time and space”. He sees evidence of these in both extremes of human theorizing, in the quantum physics of David Bohm as well as in the archetypes of Carl Jung. In both Todd reads an active creation occurring so that, as he puts it, God is evolving through humankind! He draws often from Teilhard de Chardin’s suggestions that the human species can undergo a “metamorphosis into the future of God”.
I think Todd’s answer to Hamilton might be that we can counter the evil of “playing God” by seeing that we are responsible for the continued emergence of God in the universe. Thus we are at our best if we are working into and with God. We are, as it were, part of a process in which we hold a mirror up to the universe so that it can see itself becoming. A much more attractive idea to me than “playing God”!
This sense of being in the process of God’s evolution might make us see that we must turn away from the primitive hunger for earth management, so well described by Hamilton. It might encourage us to have a more Soterian approach in which we become both humble in the face of the complexities of the universe and confident that we can find a more cooperative, harmonious and inclusive approach to life on this planet as it unfolds. We can perhaps turn away from the temptation to seek power over our planet’s systems and turn towards seeing ourselves more humbly as part of planetary evolution, taking account of God’s future as well as our own. This must entail universal participation rather than management and a readiness to discipline our human activities to take account of the Whole.
Hamilton asks in his introduction, “What have we become?” I suspect he is right when he points out that the human species still has moral choices. Most of us would prefer that these were made in the interests of the whole planet rather than left to a small but powerful “geoclique”.
Todd is a psychoanalytic psychologist and he is an Australian visionary like Hamilton. I think that he would thoroughly endorse the way Hamilton encourages us to reflect upon ourselves and what we are doing.